This NBA season has featured 28 distinct win streaks of five games or more. Yet in this particular moment, all of them pale in comparison to the unlikely run of the Pistons. Detroit, once a playoff hopeful, won just five games in its first 28 tries this season. What followed was almost too easy a prepackaged narrative: Following the unexpected release of Josh Smith, the Pistons proceeded to demolish five straight opponents by a ridiculous margin. On Tuesday night, they got their sixth straight win in the post-Smith era, beating the defending champion Spurs by a much smaller margin – one point – thanks to a game-winner by Brandon Jennings.
The basketball world gorged itself on low-hanging fruit. Smith was an almost indefensible target, after all, having played poorly and foolishly during his time in Detroit. The Pistons, no matter their public pleasantries, ultimately saw fit to swallow the $40.5 million owed Smith over three seasons solely for the benefit of having him go away.
On some level they're clearly reaping the benefits. Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy made clear coming into the season that he had no intention of pushing Smith out to the perimeter as his predecessors had. Injury killed that best-laid plan. When Jodie Meeks was pulled from Detroit's depth chart by a stress reaction in his lower back during the preseason, a frightfully thin wing rotation grew even thinner. A reluctant Van Gundy responded by playing Smith at small forward for no other reason but desperation.
Smith's return to the wing predictably caused the Pistons problems. Though so much of their early struggles seemed rooted in a separate underperformance, Detroit shouldn't have played as pitifully as it did. Defense proved to be a lost cause when relying on so many plodding rotations, and half-hearted attempts at offense were swallowed up by opponents who had no reason to fear the Pistons' perimeter shooters. Overall, Detroit ranked 24th in three-point percentage during Smith's time with the team.
The Pistons fine-tuned their accuracy in their six wins since, hitting threes at a higher clip (39.9 percent) than any but a handful of teams. Some of that stems from removing Smith, a long-range clunker, from the mix entirely. Most, however, comes from the transformative influence of adding a player who can actually shoot (Meeks) to a team that has so few. Even before Smith's exit, Detroit posted a higher offensive rating with Meeks on the floor than with any other rotation player. He's exploded since (hitting 59 percent of his threes over the last six games), as has Brandon Jennings and virtually every other player to attempt a three-pointer for the Pistons.
Sustainability is a mean word to throw around regarding a team that's so clearly playing over its head, but the recent surge of Jennings all but demands it. There are elements of the Pistons' success without Smith that make sense: Rebooting the offense with a floor-spacing small forward; clearing room for Andre Drummond (who has been scary good) and Greg Monroe to operate; and getting Meeks deeper into the rotation. None of this, however, much explains how Jennings has put up 20.2 points per game on 50.5-percent shooting while making 45 percent of his threes. There's a bit more space in the lane if Jennings were the driving sort, but so many of his attempts have been hilarious pull-up three-pointers and contested, leaning jumpers.
In many respects, Jennings has outdone himself – this has been an astounding run of hot shooting and unabated heat checking. The sobering reality will come, as it always tends to for career 39-percent shooters. Jennings shot poorly from the field with Smith in the lineup (36.4 percent) and without (38.3 percent) to open the season, as was the case last year. Smith's removal, no matter how it might appear by the raw, micro-sampled numbers, did not turn Jennings into a clone of Stephen Curry.
Smith's departure did, however, give Detroit a taste of winning it hadn't experienced all season. By the magic of the Eastern Conference, the Pistons now find themselves a mere 3.5 games removed from the eighth-place Heat. The shooting and consistent winning won't hold (especially as the schedule ramps up), but a livelier Detroit team has at the very least given itself something to push for. That could be lasting in a way that some of the Pistons' streakier indicators are not. Detroit needed much greater effort and focus if it was to hit solvency, and has made progress on that front in recent weeks. Slowly but surely, the Pistons are inching closer to the team many thought they could be. That Smith isn't around to see it is neither an outright coincidence nor some strict causality.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com.